BOOK REVIEW / Yellow ribbons for England's best-loved freak: Sue Gaisford is drained and exhilarated by the story of John McCarthy and Jill Morrell: Some other rainbow - John McCarthy & Jill Morrell: Bantam, pounds 14.99

MOROCCO was playing World Cup football one night in the summer of 1986 when a huge banner was unfurled near the scoreboard, where it was bound to appear on television. It read 'John McCarthy Beirut: Tinker Taylor says TTRA'. The cryptic message referred to an old joke about roll-your-own cigarettes: it meant Time To Roll Another, but very few people could have guessed that. It was put there in the hope that McCarthy just might be near a screen, that his captors would be likely to watch football, particularly when Arab countries were playing, and that he would know he was not forgotten. It was the first round of a long, exhausting and magnificent fight to get him out.

Though he didn't see it, the thinking was right. McCarthy was sometimes allowed to watch football - for a while he thought Lineker was the Arabic word for goal. More than that, when news of the campaign filtered through to him, it did give him a colossal boost. Also, the fact that such a message referred to a daft joke underlined the strength he was to gain from never losing his sense of humour, however appalling his circumstances.

If you dare mention luck in this context, he was lucky to have Brian Keenan with him. Keenan had been snatched on 11 April and McCarthy, in Beirut with a television news company, had gone to the university to get a picture of him, little guessing that his own freedom had less than a week to run. Looking at the hairy wild-eyed fellow in the photograph, he had decided he 'would be best avoided on a dark night or in a small room'. One dark night two months later, Keenan appeared in McCarthy's small room, eliciting the immortal greeting, 'Fuck me, it's Ben Gunn'.

It is extremely touching to read about their friendship. Relentless teasing and taunting never obscured the real love between them, which the American hostages found baffling at first. Keenan was often angrier and bolder than McCarthy, who shied from the violence that escape attempts might have necessitated, and who now fears that his public school education had taught him that it's often easier to adjust to rules than to change them. The only weapon the hostages had was suicide by hunger strike, but McCarthy was the one who stopped the others taking that option. In the case of Tom Sutherland, the old school was really useful. Persuading him to keep going by reminding him of his family, he realised it was the kind of awful emotional blackmail he knew so well: 'You're a disgrace to the house, to the school, to your parents and most of all to yourself' - but it worked.

They had some books - rather an odd selection. An instructive manual on breast-feeding, a novel about a photographer killed in Beirut and the last, gory volume of From Here to Eternity, which made him suspect the Islamic Jihad Library Service of forcing them ever deeper into depression. But The Wooden Horse, about an escape from Colditz and, to his surprise, Jane Eyre, were more inspiring. From a James Bond story they learnt how to play chemin de fer - according to Keenan, he is still owed a 10-year-old Mercedes as a result - and from an old copy of Newsweek they learnt about the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Chained to the wall in a tiny underground cell, fed almost exclusively on jam sandwiches and deprived of all comforts, they were probably the only people to envy him his conditions of 'imprisonment' in England.

Meanwhile, back in London, the Rushdie affair was one of many setbacks for Jill Morrell. The stubborn refusal of the Foreign Office to do anything at all to look for the hostages is appalling to read about. Nobody wanted the kind of deal that would encourage more kidnaps, but every other government seemed to be able to do something, while even the ideas suggested by the British ambassador in Beirut had been vetoed by Mrs Thatcher. Jill Morrell leads us through the tortured reasoning behind it all, making it clear exactly how she came to the reluctant decision that publicity was necessary.

The Friends of John McCarthy was an organisation born of desperation that grew and grew because so many people longed to help. A director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty offered the services of his advertising agency free and came up with the wonderful Close Your Eyes and Think of England campaign; many famous people came and performed at the benefit 'An Evening Without John McCarthy' - and nearly 2,000 supporters attended it. Jill's Auntie Shirley lobbied her MP so fiercely that her postman thought she was running for Parliament. By the time he came home, she says, he was everybody's son, everybody's brother, everybody's lover.

This publicity was to backfire. The last part of the book comes after the happy ending, when the pair of them had to try to adjust. Each admits to feeling guilty, she for making him so uncomfortably famous, he for being free while others were still imprisoned. He was trying to learn again to do the simplest things, like focusing on a horizon, making tea or even walking on rough ground, but to everyone else, he was a folk hero, as he puts it, 'the best-loved freak in the land'. Complete strangers would cry over him or want to touch him and the press hounded him. He was constantly nervous, often terrified. Jill, her all-consuming crusade suddenly over, found it almost as confusing having to look after him. Time meant such different things to them both: for her there had never been enough to get everything done, for him there had been far too much. Suddenly, there was just as much as they wanted, if they were just allowed to take it.

They are better now. Writing this book, taking it in turns to write each long section (until the very end where, symbolically, they almost overlap) has clearly helped them to understand their own attitudes and experiences as well as each other's. It is an astonishing achievement: while often wildly funny, it is also humbling, draining, exhausting and ultimately exhilarating to read.

The really remarkable thing is that they combine meticulous honesty with such gentle understanding and lack of rancour. Almost the only thing they will probably never forgive, in a story with more than its share of disappointments and betrayals, is the death of John's mother, not knowing if her son would ever come back. Yet even as he reeled from the shock of hearing it, he remembered her saying: 'Felix, we should have called you Felix, it would have been so right for you; it means happy and you are happy.' If ever anybody deserved to be happy, these two do.

(Photograph omitted)